Shashi Kapoor’s character Rajkumar says it best at the end of Jawani Jaanemann from Namak Halaal (1982): “Wah wah, wah wah, wah, splendid.”
Bappi Lahiri’s irresistibly catchy tune, beautifully belted out by club song queen Asha Bhosle, is set in movie set heaven. For once, this trip into golden-hued intemperance actually has a context.
Rajkumar is the owner of a hotel that has previously seen performances by black-faced men, women in shiny colour-coordinated clothes and Arjun (Amitabh Bachchan) channeling Peter Sellers from The Party (1968). Rajkumar is unaware that a plot to kill him has been hatched by his manager (Ranjit). It involves a honey trap in the form of Nisha (Parveen Babi), a cabaret artist with dubious dancing skills but estimable seductive powers.
Nisha initially demurs when told that Rajkumar must be “liberated… from life”. But she accepts the assignment and plays hard to get when she lands up at the hotel. When sent a bouquet through loyal waiter and Rajkumar’s eventual savior Arjun, Nisha spurns the flowers and sends her employer a cactus plant in return.
In the long tradition of men who are not used to being rebuffed, especially when they resemble Shashi Kapoor, Rajkumar is initially puzzled and, when he finally sets eyes on Nisha, gobsmacked.
Who wouldn’t be? The dance floor is decorated with glistening golden-hued floral and cacti-inspired props. Nisha is resplendent in a shimmering lamé gown and matching accessories, and she teases the drunk Rajkumar with loaded lyrics. The hunter is now the hunted, she informs him as her hands jerk out from her waist in robotic movements.
Parveen Babi wasn’t the best dancer of the 1980s, but she was easily one of popular Hindi cinema’s stunners. Terpsichorean excellence isn’t the point in this unabashed tribute to hedonism in the decade that embraced it.
Babi is as ornamental as the cacti props in Prakash Mehra’s blockbuster, which is a multi-starrer in the tradition of ’80s films but reserves its best lines and scenes for Bachchan. This is the movie with the monologue in which Arjun displays his English speaking skills. It’s the one in which Shashi Kapoor stands by like a sport and Smita Patil’s character submits herself to an icky rain dance song.
Babi has another great moment of seduction in Raat Baaki, in which she is clad in a shiny black gown and sings of the unknown pleasures of the night. It’s another smooth and catchy number, superbly rendered by Bhosle, but the bling and cacti are missing.
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